Tuesday 27 September 2016

Airbrushed from history: the unsung hero of Ireland's Celtic Revival

Published 07/09/2016 | 02:30

In her politics, she was both radical and progressive, her republicanism envisaging an Ireland of North and South that could transcend gender, religion, tribe and social class - exactly the kind of Republic outlined in the 1916 Proclamation.
In her politics, she was both radical and progressive, her republicanism envisaging an Ireland of North and South that could transcend gender, religion, tribe and social class - exactly the kind of Republic outlined in the 1916 Proclamation.

She is an unsung hero of the Celtic Revival, her vision contributing to the birth of modern Ireland. In the years leading up to 1916, she fused creativity and politics in a pioneering fashion, devoting her work to the campaign for independence. Yet when the writer Alice Milligan's name is mentioned today, most people ask: "Alice who?"

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Her 150th anniversary falls next week - she was born on September 14, 1866 - and it appears as though the date is being allowed to trickle by without a murmur of recognition from official Ireland.

What an oversight this is, considering how the State's independence springs, in part, from the activism and passion that poured from her pen. In being set aside as inconvenient, awkward, a gremlin in the authorised narrative, Alice is emblematic of so many Irishwomen whose impact has been minimised or never acknowledged.

Alice was a poet, playwright, journalist and theatre producer, as well as an Irish language enthusiast employed as a teacher by the Gaelic League. In her politics, she was both radical and progressive, her republicanism envisaging an Ireland of North and South that could transcend gender, religion, tribe and social class - exactly the kind of Republic outlined in the 1916 Proclamation.

And she embodied that inclusivity, as an Ulster Protestant feminist and social activist. If space had been made for her in the Free State which came into being in 1921, her contribution could have enhanced Ireland's evolution. Instead, she ended her days as a footnote of history, at home in her native Tyrone, where the politics of partition left her belonging fully in neither part of Ireland.

Yet in the early 1900s, Alice helped to forge a compelling interpretation of Ireland as a country with a vibrant cultural and historical identity that was distinct from the British empire's. This identity was used to advance the case for political separation.

Daring, energetic and imaginative, she influenced WB Yeats and Thomas MacDonagh with her brand of creativity which drew its inspiration from Celtic legends, and historical events such as the 1798 rebellion. She was a pivotal figure among a ground-breaking, revolutionary generation, advocating the use of Irish themes in literary and theatrical work in a manner that would later be called consciousness-raising.

She knew Michael Davitt, Eoin MacNeill, Eamon de Valera and Éamonn Ceannt, and stood outside Pentonville Jail to show solidarity with her friend Roger Casement on the morning he was hanged.

Consider, then, the irony implicit in Alice being all but forgotten by the current generation. Not so much as a whisper about her was heard during the 1916 commemorations.

And that absence is emblematic of so many others. Alice is missing from the narrative of Ireland's march towards independence, just as so many other women have been airbrushed out - consigned to the margins during their lifetimes, inconvenient ghosts of Ireland Past, and an Ireland that never came into being.

Like Alice, they were unwelcome reminders of the mismatch between the ideals of that revolutionary generation - and what resulted. In the North, partition and a conservative, Protestant state for a Protestant people. In the Republic, an inward-looking, patriarchal society with no division between (Catholic) Church and State. And never the twain shall meet.

Alice and her contemporaries represent something more hopeful, something broader, before ultra-cautious entrenchment took root. Her ethos, culturally and politically, was always to build links between Protestant and Catholic, North and South. When inspirational people such as Alice were marginalised, it meant essential bridges were left unbuilt between the two sections of this island.

As a theatre producer, Alice was first to put Irish actors onstage in plays which had Irish themes. Her theatrical innovation influenced WB Yeats, and her work was the forerunner to an Irish national theatre. Thomas MacDonagh called her the best living Irish poet of his generation - an exaggeration, but testament to the regard in which her contemporaries held her.

Alice was born a Methodist in my hometown of Omagh, Co Tyrone, into a solidly middle-class and unionist family. Her journey to become of the most influential voices of the nationalist movement could hardly have been predicted.

She recaptured that childhood in one of her best-known poems, 'When I Was a Little Girl', which describes how her nurse turned the United Irishmen into bogeymen: "Come in! for it's growing late,/And the grass will wet ye!/Come in! or when it's dark/The Fenians will get ye."

As a young woman, Alice collaborated with another writer, Anna Johnston, daughter of prominent Fenian Robert Johnston (her pen-name was Ethna Carbery). Together they published the 'Shan Van Vocht' literary magazine. Douglas Hyde and Arthur Griffith were among its contributors, and she showcased the early works of James Connolly. Presciently, she used the magazine to connect with the diaspora.

I learned about Alice at school in Omagh, where we were taught her poetry, and at home, where her name was invoked with respect. She died in 1953, and the writer Benedict Kiely was among those who remembered meeting her. He said if you saw her on the road you'd give her a few coins, so impoverished did she look, observing that Ireland should hang its head in shame.

In recent years, the academic Dr Catherine Morris has performed a valuable service in gathering Alice's archive for a study of her life and work, 'Alice Milligan and the Irish Cultural Revival'.

Alice is buried just outside Omagh, where her headstone was damaged by loyalists during the Troubles because a few words as Gaeilge are inscribed there. That's the Ireland which developed.

I'll be standing by that graveside this Saturday, as part of the Benedict Kiely Literary Festival, to read aloud some of her work. The men and women who struggled for Ireland's right to assert its own identity after centuries of colonisation are worth remembering. As an inspiration to Yeats, MacDonagh and others, Alice is a formidable figure in our cultural history - to let her be eclipsed is to wrong her. Ourselves, too.

To mark the anniversary, Martina Devlin wrote a short story about Alice Milligan for a new anthology of women writers, 'The Glass Shore', edited by Sinéad Gleeson and published next month by New Island

Irish Independent

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